Strength from the Inside:  Rodney Strong Pushes On

As a student of business, and specifically marketing in business, I watch certain wineries to see how they handle themselves, reasonably detached, but with a certain brand affection—not unlike having a rooting interest in the NFL playoffs after your team has been eliminated.

Typically, the wineries I follow are mid-sized, but independently owned and largely available in national distribution—the toughest spot in the wine business, not capitalized by a larger company, yet not small enough where decisions can be made by the seat of the pants.  No sir, there are implications to consider.

Still, these wineries have a hands-on touch from the owners.

Two such wineries that come to mind are Dry Creek Vineyard and Rodney Strong Vineyards.


Rodney Strong, in particular, is an interesting study subject and arguably on the cusp of outpacing mid-sized winery status at 800,000 cases of production. Yet, with them, it’s still reasonably easy to observe the machinations of leadership and market(s) positioning that make for fruitful observation.

The first thing to know is owner Tom Klein doesn’t shrink from leadership and he’s well respected by his peers.  To wit, he’s the Chairman of the Wine Institute for 2010 – 2011. 


Another admirable trait about Rodney Strong is the fact that they understand that quality is always the best marketing.  You can have the greatest branding in the world, but at the end of the day the product has to support the “brand” in lockstep.  And, in my estimation, in addition to always being varietally correct and neo-Californian in style, Rodney Strong demonstrates significant QPR on virtually every wine within their segmented wine line-up.

As an analogy, when you see the schlubby guy with the beautiful wife and you remark to a buddy, “Man, that guy way outkicked his coverage” – that’s Rodney Strong’s price relative to quality.  You could throw darts blindfolded and hit a good Rodney Strong wine.

In addition to quality, their marketing acumen is apparent in two forms:

1) They have a well-segmented wine line-up that even a simpleton can understand

2) They have a sense of themselves and what’s important to them and how that message is carried forward in advertising

In regard to #1, I would hesitate to call Rodney Strong the “Toyota of Wine” – a phrase that instantly associates them as “solid,” “reliable,” “well-made,” “not too flashy, but stylish and contemporary.”  Yet, their wine segmentation definitely pays homage to an auto manufactures line-up of cars and, frankly, the comparison works both in form and function.

When Toyota created Lexus as their luxury brand and, in recent years, when Rodney Strong created their “winery within a winery” for Rockaway and Brothers Ridge, two wines that have distinctly separate brand elements from Rodney Strong, you know the comparison is appropriate.

See the below graph for Toyota’s car line-up and how that equates to Rodney Strong’s wine line-up:


Secondarily, Rodney Strong’s advertising underwent some fine-tuning last fall to reinforce a very important aspect about their winery:  Place Matters.

In the hurly-burly that is the modern wine marketplace, it’s often hard to tell the provenance of a wine.  Rodney Strong, attempting to strike a more serious tone while elevating their advertising above me-too look-alike campaigns, is now indicating that, yes, where they grow the grapes is important, changing their positioning from, “From Our Place to Yours” to “Place Matters.”

Conceived by LA advertising agency, Sagon | Phire, Dan Wildermuth, VP of Marketing at Rodney Strong said, “It was felt that adding the people to the ad made it more casual and like many other casual brand ads.  We wanted to keep a level of seriousness and focus on the wine and its origin.  We are all about Sonoma County and the AVA’s we grow our grapes in and in this case, specifically Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.”

You can see the previous advertising below, followed by the current version.

In sum, wine lovers often like to talk about the lessons in the glass—the wisdom that wine offers, a reflection on humanity.  Yes, that’s true, but let’s not forget that wine can also offer other lessons as well – notably, how to run a good business with a focus on quality.